Here we go! It’s day one (okay, technically night one) of the 2015 edition of the New York Asian Festival. Am fairly hyped for the opening film, which I’ve yet to see, hence no review. But what I do have is the low-down on another high profile motion picture this year, along with another that touches upon something that’s been in the news way too much these days (i.e. cyber bullying)…
For the past several years, the highlight of every New York Asian Film Festival has been the latest and greatest from Sion Sono, who is starting to approach Takashi Miike-esuqe levels of notoriety, slowly but steadily. One of the many reasons why NYAFF 2009 remains such a stand out installment to this very day is largely due to (in addition to Hausu, Blind Love, Fish Story, and Hard Revenge Milly) Sono’s 4 hour epic Love Exposure. He’s also the man behind last year’s hit Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, though my personal favorite will always be Bad Movie, which I consider to be a legit contender to the tile of the Citizen Kane of guerrilla filmmaking. Anyhow, this year we’ve got Tokyo Tribe, proving once again that one must expect the unexpected when it comes to the director. Though it would appear that the NYAFF is betting that it’ll be a hit with this year’s crowd, given that it’s playing twice (I definitely miss the days in which most everything at the NYAFF played more than once; would certainly make my reviews a helluva lot more useful), as the final film in their big 4th of July line-up plus to help close the festival as a whole. Hell, it’s even provided the backbone for this year’s teaser…
Where to start? Based upon a manga, Tokyo Tribe is a hip hop musical that’s been accurately described as “equal parts The Warriors and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.” It presents an alternate version of Tokyo that’s been divided into territories ruled by, you guessed it, tribes. Everyone engages in petty squabbles, completely unaware of the bigger picture, which is maintained by Big Buppa, the yakuza boss who’s also a cannibal portrayed by (Takashi Miike vet) Riki Takeuchi. Lending a hand are his two sons; Nkoi is the biological one, who dwells in a room adorned with victims that have been turned into furniture (imagine the Korova Milk Bar in Clockwork Orange, except real people pretending to be its statues), and Merra is the adopted one, portrayed by Ryohei Suzuki (last seen as the heroic lead of yet another past NYAFF favorite, Hentai Kamen). Both are fairly bloodthirsty, though the latter is particularly nutso; rounding out the family is Buppa’s gal pal who sports gigantic breasts and a young girl that does beatbox while serving tea (not only is she the best rapper in the entire movie, she’s the best character as well; too bad she’s barely present, but her scant few minutes are the price of admission alone, TRUST ME). Events are set into motion when the latest cargo of hapless young ladies arrive at Buppa’s mansion, who are either destined to be the latest additions at the whorehouse located in Sagu Town (the red light district that lies within Buppa’s territory, where one can also find assorted classic Sega arcade machines, btw) or become what’s next for dinner. The most virginal of them all ends up being a total ass kicker; Sunmi (Nana Seino, who aside from Riki Takeuchi’s hamming it up and the aforementioned beatboxing tea girl, is the third real stand out) catches the eye of both Nkoi and Merra, who thusly try to have their ways with her. Yup, they flat out attempt to rape Sunmi. I’ll address that point in a bit. Anyways, at the same time, one of Merra’s cronies has tricked a couple of members of the Musashino Saru into entering Big Buppa domain. The Musashino Saru, fyi, is the one tribe filled with gangstas that are all about peace, love, and harmony. They also hang at a restaurant that’s very much like Denny’s, expect here it’s Penny’s.
Tera, Musashino Saru’s leader, goes after them with his lieutenant Kai (Young Dais, whose a rapper for reals) by his side. Kai ends up rescuing Sunmi, though Tera is killed in the crossfire. Meanwhile Jadakins, a tall black guy who appears to be channeling the spirit of Laurence Fishburne’s character from The Matrix (but with hair), along with his interpreter Kamekichi, show up on the behalf of the High Priest (Big Buppa’s higher power) on a mission to bring back his missing daughter. Who is… yup… Sunmi. And on top of all that, the bad guys unleashes the Bukuro Wu-Ronz across all territories, a tribe with no land of their own, who are basically guns for hire that handily decimates all the other tribes. Who, it should be noted, are all shaken to the core upon hearing news of the death of Tera; he earned much respect among all the other tribal leaders, kinda like Cyrus from The Warriors. It’s then up to Kai unify all the squabbling tribes, since a unified front is the only thing that’s take down the Bukuro Wu-Ronz and Big Buppa once in for all. Is he successful? Let’s just say that there’s lots of fighting, and lots of rapping. Sounds interesting, right? Is Tokyo Tribe worth checking out? Well that’s the thing… often I’ll hear people go “I wanna see one of these totally off the wall, totally extremes movies from Japan I keep hearing about!” And as they say, careful what you wish for; Tokyo Tribe might be the most extreme movie Sion Sono has made yet, in both good ways and bad. On one hand, the production values are absolutely bonkers; I honestly cannot recall the last movie I saw from Japan that’s as flat out opulent. Aside from the phenomenal set design and elaborate costumes, the camera work is equally impressive; early on, Sono channels Orson Welles again with a brilliantly executed tracking shot (a la Touch of Evil) to help set the scene; it all comes together to create a staggeringly convincing world, never-mind the cheesy J-rap. But just as one has reached a certain comfort zone, in which the brain has begun processing everything, including what comes off as language… you witness a female cop being overpowered by a thug, who rips off her shirt and exposes her naked breasts, which he first manhandles and then traces with a blade, as he casually explains the lay of the land (so this particular scene happens very early on), with the woman who initially is writhing in terror eventually writhing in pleasure. Yup, it’s that kind of movie. As in, Tokyo Tribe may not be for you.
And maybe it’s not for me either, but for other reasons; in the end, the rapping really didn’t do it for me. 90% of me was able to accept a bunch of Tokyo tough guys carrying themselves around like they grew up in South Central LA. Unfortunately, there’s that other 10%. Though what really did in for me was how the majority of the characters didn’t have much personality. Perhaps it’s an unfair criticism, since these individuals are barely in the movie. Then again, the reason why The Warriors (sorry to constantly bring them up) is so memorable is how it’s chock full of characters you barely get a taste of, like the Baseball Furies, yet they’re able to create a lasting impression nonetheless. Thankfully the primary cast here is super strong; even if none of the raps are infectious (which is the true sign of a musical being a success or failure), then at least Riki Takeuchi’s giddiness sure as hell is. In the end, Tokyo Tribe is legit compelling, even remarkable. I’d go as far to say that, yes, I enjoyed myself. It’s just that, as a Sion Sono flick, I was hoping to enjoy myself a tad bit more (never-mind what I said at the top about expectations). Despite the presence of some rather problematic elements (which, in the end, is hardly foreign territory to those familiar with rap), I still recommend Tokyo Tribe. One more: it’s all about the beatboxing tea server. As noted, you’ve got two chances to check it out; either Saturday, July 4, at the Walter Reade Theater (get your tickets for that screening here) or Saturday July 11, at the SVA Theatre (nab tickets for that showing here).
Back to the subject of yearly traditions; each year the NYAFF has offered at least one movie in which the narrative is largely delivered via social media. This time around it’s Socialphobia, which aside from setting box office records for a South Korean indie feature, is based on a true story. And much like last year’s The Snow White Murder Case, there’s a body and a mystery behind it, one that can only be solved by reading between the tweets. The stars of the show are Ji-Woong (Byun Yo-Han) and Yong-Min (Lee Joo Seung), two police cadets. The former knows well enough to keep his phone locked away, until the semester ends, whereas the former spends all his time engrossed in Twitter drama, much like everyone else. Things kick off with the news of young Korean army solider who deserted his post and then killed himself, which becomes a trending topic. The prevailing sentiment is that of sadness, though mostly cuz it’s interpreted as just another sign of the sad state of affair for Korean males, except one girl who basically says the guy was a loser and is now burning in hell. This pisses plenty of people off, especially Yong-Min, who starts flamming her online. Even Ji-Woong gets in on the action, by borrowing his friend’s phone to tweet some shade himself, which naturally proves to be a pretty stupid move for someone who wants a career in law enforcement. Later that night, Yong-Min comes up with the bright idea of confronting the “internet bitch”, to conduct a “real life PKing” (PK stands for Player Killing in MMORPGs). Because she vociferously attacks anyone who dares to criticize her (at one point she uses the term “kimchi-men”, which is supposed to be derogatory, though I don’t know why exactly), the internet as a whole bands together to dig up and freely distribute a wealth of personal info, so tracking her down is not an issue. Yong-Min brings with him a posse, which includes a vlogging geek that goes by Mr. Babble, who decides to livestream the entire excursion. And what do they find when they arrive at the residence of the “internet bitch”? Her body dangling from the ceiling. And what’s the first thing that comes into the minds of most everyone at the scene? To start deleting incriminating tweets.
The resulting police investigation deems the death of the young woman, whose name is actually Ha-yeong, a suicide. Though both Ji-Woong and Yong-Min discover that their dreams of being policemen are effectively over; aside from the fact that they tampered with evidence (Ji-Woong took the body down, believing that Ha-yeong was still alive), they both threatened her online. Ji-Woong in particular is devastated, whereas Yong-Min believes that Ha-yeong was actually murdered. Because, why would someone invite others to meet her face to face (she was indeed expecting a bunch of angry internet dorks to show up, and was even goading them on) just to kill herself right beforehand? Also, why was the door open when they arrived? Furthermore, why was the dryer running? Who kills themselves in the middle of doing laundry? Yong-Min reunites the gang with his theory, which they all believe (Ji-Woong is particularly invested since the truth is the key to him graduating as a cop), and thus their investigation begins. One of their first discoveries is how Ha-yeong was actually Becca, a “keyboard warrior” (translation: she dabbled in StarCraft) whose high level of play was matched only by her affinity for trash talk, resulting in various online grudges that are widely known. Enter Jang Se-min, their first prime suspect, who aside from being a guy who hated Becca guts, also supposedly raped another girl that he met online, so he’s basically scum. So how does Ji-Woong and the rest of the Scooby gang confront this guy? By tweeting at him, of course. Yet Jang Se-min manages to impress everyone with his pleas of innocence, though more impressive is his vast fortune (though Yong-Min still thinks he’s a POS). Nevertheless, Jang Se-min’s alibi appears to have merit when he reveals how Ha-yeong’s Twitter account had been hacked, and all that trash talk near the end was courtesy of yet another rival, whose handle is Dodori (long story short: Dodori was the moderator of a popular StarCraft forum, but Ha-yeong found out the truth and exposed him, and in the process <.em>”ruined his life”). And thus the hunt continues, aided by a forum they set to gather clues as well as generate interest from denizens of the net, who start believing that Ha-yeong was indeed killed after all.
The ensuing investigation is naturally filled with all sorts of discoveries, primarily as they pertain to Ha-yeong’s real life, which turns out to be not all that different from her volatile online persona. There’s also a massive twist near the end which I’m not going to give away for obvious reasons, but also because it would just sound so dumb written out, but works out rather nicely in the film, mostly because it’s so plausible. Unlike most other movies that leans heavily upon social media in a similar manner (and trust me, there’s been a lot of them over the past few years, from South Korea alone), which tries to teach everyone a lesson in the end that we should all learn from, it’s rather blunt, matter of fact conclusion is both depressing and refreshing. So it’s definitely one of the better examples of its kind, yet it certainly isn’t perfect; like all the other aforementioned flicks, the screen will become filled with everyone’s tweets and it just becomes tiresome (obviously not helping is that, unless you understand Korean, you won’t know much of what is being said; only the most important tweets are translated, which kinda kills the point of the information overload). I know it’s important, but watching people fixated on their phones can be just as annoying in a movie as it is in real life. Still, Socialphobia is definitely worth a shot, especially if you’re new to the “genre” if you can call it that. It plays on the 4th of July as well, a couple of hours before Tokyo Tribe’s first screening, at the Walter Reade Theater (get your tickets here).